Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb discusses important issues around resilience and how complex systems survive and thrive in a changing environment. According to the author the fact that randomness, uncertainty, and volatility damage modern systems indicates that are fundamentally fragile. Anti-fragile systems are ones that not only respond to these forces but also grow stronger through the response process.
These are five star ideas in a five star philosophical book. It is a one star business book. The one star review intends to get your attention. You need to know what you will buy, rather than what others – not Taleb – are trying to sell you.
Rarely has such a powerful and important idea been expressed in such a difficult to access way.
Business leaders, policy makers and academics beware this book is not written for any of you, particularly if you are looking for prescriptive answers.
Antifragile is a not a business book and it is not intended to be one – that would be the antithesis of Taleb’s objective. Taleb is a modern day philosopher powered by the web who uses his observational abilities, experience and intellect to explain how modern intervention makes our world fragile. Taleb discusses over almost 500 pages, the idea that systems left to their own devices, given time to adjust and free of well-intentioned intervention (iatrogenics) they will tend to adapt, survive and grow.
This book is a philosophical discussion based on the observation that there are systems that grow stronger and improve when subject to stress. That is the essence of the ‘anti-fragile’ idea.
This book is a narrative intended to be instructional and help you consider an alternative way of thinking. The book does not espouse a universally applicable methodology. Taleb uses rhetoric, observations and hypothetical conversation to make his points across 25 chapters.
This is a book that demands to be read, considered, reflected upon before one can take action – or more often abstain from action and let nature take its course. This is a book you are going to want to buy in hard cover in order to take notes, pick up and put down.
It is ironic that academics will be the most likely to take up this book, as Taleb expresses such contempt and distain for intellectuals and academics. Pseudo-intellectuals will incorporate Taleb’s ideas into their conversations the same way they now talk about ‘black swans’ and everyone will miss the author’s point.
Taleb’s ideas are basically in support of nature, time and limited intervention. These are fundamentally libertarian ideas. Taleb draws on the wisdom of the ancients, updates it for the modern world and proposes emphasizing experimentation, small failures that strengthen the larger system. He advocates abstinence from the type of heavy handed directed and interventionist policies. People suffer from delusion that complex systems can be controlled, managed and their ill effects reduced.
Taleb takes a longer view than most of us that not only incorporates the existence of extreme but unlikely events – black swans – but also gives complex systems time to respond, adjust and adapt to shocks and retain their antifragile properties. In taking the longer view Taleb’s prescriptions, such as they exist, are to let things run their course, protect the most vulnerable but not so much as to ‘legislate’ risk out of the equation.
An anti-fragile world is a world where there are winners and losers. Both are required for a complex system to sustain, adapt and evolve. Taleb is not conservative. In fact he rails against the idea that our actions should preserve the past, a policy that only hides risk and exacerbates negative consequences. Taleb is more libertarian in his views.
The book is written in an engaging dialog style, like you are sitting with Uncle Nassim to hear his views on everything. The stories and examples are local in nature, people in your neighborhood, situations you can relate to. Taleb punctuates the stories with facts, research from others and support that remind you of the depth and complexity of such a simple idea. It is the best of a dialectic style, powered by the Internet.
Overall, recommended if you are going to put the time, energy and thought into reading the ideas, working past the writing and think about what this means. If you are looking for a quick fix, to be ‘in the know’ then I suggest reading the fawning reviews on this site or the articles.
Antifragile is a rare book these days, one that seeks to present an idea in the full and apply it to the world we live in without the fear of being politically correct. It is a book that demands and requires your attention and reflection. If you can give it both then, this book will give you much in return.
Taleb’s observations regarding the fragility of the modern world and how our actions destroy anti-fragility are powerful and shed new light on public policy, business strategy, economic policy and technology.
Taleb’s book provides a substantive and complete discussion of the ideas behind what makes systems fragile, forces that build anti-fragility.
Rather than creating a narrow definition or description, Taleb illustrates the breadth and depth of anti-fragility. In the book Taleb discusses how these ideas apply in medicine, financial markets, social development, etc.
Taleb uses tables throughout the book summarizing his argument and providing examples contrasting the fragile from anti-fragile. These tables are helpful to re-anchor the reader in the argument and discussion.
Taleb pounds on the central idea of ‘anti-fragile’ throughout the entire book. While the idea is important and has the depth for a long exposition, it makes the book tedious to read at times. If you want to get an idea of what is this looks like read Taleb’s article Learning to Love Volatility in the November 16th 2012 Wall Street Journal before taking on the book.
The use of isolated, simplified ideas to illustrate points in the argument make the book easier to understand, but leaves the reader asking – but what if …
The prose is complex as Taleb often gives you half or two thirds of the idea and assumes you are smart enough to fill in the blanks. While its possible to do it, this is one reason why the book needs to be read and considered not skimmed and cherry picked.
There are a whole new set of Talebisms and terms that people will start introducing into common business speech without understanding what they mean. People will start to talk about the actions they need to take to make their company anti-fragile, for example, to help it respond better to volatility and in that very statement prove that they neither really read the book or thought about what anti-fragile means.